Timor-Leste will go to the polls as a result of its five-year electoral cycle on 17 March, kicking off an electoral process that will run until early July.
The question hanging over this process is whether it will mark the formal consolidation of democracy in the once deeply troubled territory, or whether it will signal a return to the problems of 2006–07 — which have been a common feature in many other post-conflict, post-colonial states.
As Timor-Leste heads into the three rounds of 2012 elections, election observers have begun to organise to monitor the election process and to report their findings. Accredited by Timor-Leste’s National Electoral Commission (CNE), observers continue to play a critical role in the young country’s still developing democratic process. Observers have been a part of Timor-Leste’s democratic process from the start of the country’s move towards independence. In 1999, independent observers spread across the then occupied territory, often by local transport and staying in homes or basic local accommodation, helping to enhance the larger international presence and thereby complicating plans by the Indonesian army, then known as ABRI, and its proxy militias to derail the ballot process. The observers gave Timor-Leste’s people an understanding that, though it was a difficult time, they were not alone.
The various contenders for Timor-Leste’s presidency in the 17 March election have begun to try to persuade the voting public why they should be elected as president. A number of candidates have said that, if elected, they will institute particular changes or reforms. These promises appear, however, to misunderstand the role of Timor-Leste’s president.
In short, the role of the president in Timor-Leste is, with few exceptions, a ceremonial one. Apart from a few carefully circumscribed areas, Timor-Leste’s president does not have an executive function.
Presidential candidates who announce that, if elected, they will institute particular changes therefore appear to be unaware of the constitutional role of the president. It is either that, or that they wish to change the constitution and give Timor-Leste a different type of political system.
As Timor-Leste’s political climate warms up ahead of next month’s presidential elections, many people are asking who is most likely to be elected president. In a country that does not have political polling, there are no obvious indications as to which candidates are most preferred by voters. But there are some indications of possible combinations, each of which could produce very different outcomes.
The vote from 2007 is seen by many as an indication to voting intentions in 2012 but, if so, it is no more than an indication. Since 2007, the political landscape has changed, which could affect how Timor-Leste’s citizens vote and how the candidates and parties align themselves.
The announcement by President Jose Ramos-Horta that he will seek re-election for a second term in office has thrown open Timor-Leste’s presidential race, all but guaranteeing that the process will now run to a second round of voting. Although Ramos-Horta’s candidacy adds another strong contender to the presidential stakes, added to two other strong contenders and what will probably be a list of around a dozen less likely candidates, it now seems unlikely that any one candidate will receive the requisite 50%+1 in order to win the presidency in the first round. President Ramos-Horta announced his decision to run again for the presidency after receiving a petition signed by more than 116,000 East Timorese asking him to stand again for the office. He had been considering whether or not to run again throughout 2011 and had at times said that he would both run and not run again.
The current debate in Timor-Leste about whether to use a ‘mother tongue’ or home language for the first years of education or whether to focus on building Tetum as a national language has raised a number of important points. These include whether local languages are, in the long term, viable and whether they could promote disunity, or whether children already disadvantaged by communication in a multiplicity of languages will learn better if they start in a language they are most familiar with.
The literature on learning does clearly indicate that children are more engaged and do have better educational outcomes if they at least begin their education in a language they are most familiar with. A second, national language can be taught as part of the school curriculum and, at a point at which students are sufficiently advanced, they can switch to the national language.
As the rhetoric heats up ahead of Timor-Leste’s official campaigning period for the forthcoming presidential elections, there is considerable interest in how the political process will unfold in 2012. There are a range of possibilities, but some possible outcomes do seem more likely than others.
The big question is whether Timor-Leste voters are likely to show the voting discipline they did in the three rounds of elections in 2007. In those contests, the vote for the first presidential round was very closely reflected in the second round, with the minor parties but one throwing their support behind Rose Ramos-Horta, who was elected in the second round with an overwhelming majority of just under 70 per cent. Fretilin’s candidate, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, increased his vote from just under 30 per cent to just over 30 per cent, reflecting the addition of the support of a further, minor party.
The first (verbal) shots have been fired in Timor-Leste’s presidential elections, scheduled for 17 March. Among the announced candidates for the election are Fretilin’s president, Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres and former commander of Timor-Leste’s armed forces (F-FDTL), Jose Maria Vasconcelos, better known as ‘Taur Matan Ruak’. Current president Jose Ramos-Horta has said he will announce whether he will stand for a second term as president in early February. The Timor-Leste presidency is, according to the constitution, a largely ceremonial position. However, Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmao before him have tested the constitutional limits of the office. In a speech to Fretilin village chiefs in Baucau recently, Taur Matan Ruak spoke strongly in favour of his candidacy for the presidency. Fretilin, he said, had not governed well as the first post-independence government.